Fanning the Fire: Roger Federer Burns Deeper Than Rafael Nadal

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Fanning the Fire: Roger Federer Burns Deeper Than Rafael Nadal
Nick Laham/Getty Images

The merits of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not up for debate, nor what their rivalry has brought to tennis.

Yet draw a line, and almost every fan will step to one side or the other: favor Roger or favor Rafa. This collaboration takes the view from either side of the net. Neither will change the allegiance of the other, just offer the other man’s point of view: antiMatter's case for Rafa.

Tennis is like an orchestra. Each instrument plays its part, harmonises with its neighbor, carries a melody, beats a rhythm, picks up a subtle theme, and winds it through the symphony’s movement.

Tennis is like a ballet. Music, dancer, choreographer, and setting interweave to tell a story as compelling as a love affair or as heart-rending as tragedy.

Tennis is like game of chess. Opposing hands lift and shift the contrasting pieces, creating patterns and strategies as complex as a computer program, with movements both concise and evasive, elegant and simple.

Tennis is a drama of infinite possibilities with no right answers, no perfect solution, and no ideal player. What unfolds between two the protagonists is all the more beautiful for its contrast and its balance, its ebb and flow, its power and touch, its energy and stillness.

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What would Siegfried be without the counterbalance of Odette? Where is victory for the white queen if there is no black king? Where is the wintry intensity of Vivaldi’s soaring violin without the stirring thrum of cello and bass?

Bjorn Borg glistened against the heat of John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova took flight from the grounded Chris Evert, and Nadal’s physical presence is burnished by Federer’s gilding.

Yet one instrument always, always strikes a deeper chord, brings a more visceral response, raises the goosebumps more than the rest.

What is it that makes Federer “the one:” the cello rather than the flute, Beethoven rather than Bach, Austen rather Bronte?

Movement

The walk is languorous, like a cat prowling its territory. His feet caress the Wimbledon turf: soundless, white, stained with the merest hint of grassy green.

It should be tennis but it is dance. Small adjustments, as feet bounce, stride, turn and reverse. Gravity draws a line from chest though pelvis to high-wire poise. The most balanced, most effortless footwork in tennis.

The gift is to make it look easy. He’s structured for catwalk duty, but his leanness belies a powerful underlying musculature.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Federer caught at the point of impact has the build of a thoroughbred bursting from the starting gate.

Serve

Everything is soft: the roll of hips, the slightest nod of head to ball boy, the catch and bounce in preparation for serve.

A toe extends, knees sink, and the body unwinds in a wave that transforms from cat to snake-like sinuous. The action is repeated time and again, identical and economical, but the results are a rainbow of variety.

His serves are a sheep in wolf’s clothing, rapiers sheathed in silk, things of beauty yet deadly weapons. They swing and they shoot, can be straight or can be curved, might leap from the line or skid through the court.

Wimbledon 2009 final vs Andy Roddick

He has always held the Wimbledon crowd in his palm. His 2009 performance on London’s lawns was like a kiss on their cheek.

Federer’s tennis came together with fluidity, lightness and ingenuity: had it not, he may have lost one of his greatest battles.

The snap of flat drives inter-spliced with near-silent slice, followed by the touch of a stop volley were a classicist’s dream. The alternating sliced and top-spun drives were a modernist’s signature.

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Federer attacked the net 59 times, took overheads, and picked balls from his feet to make winning returns. He even out-served one of the Tour’s best servers, 50 aces in all.

At a set down and 6-2 down in the second set tie-break, he won six points to level the match. In the third set tie-break, he went up 5-1 only to be pulled back to 6-5, and again sealed the set on his serve.

The match went into a nail-biting fifth set of near perfection with just three break points in the entire 30 games.

It was four-and-a-half-hours of fast-paced quality, with just three breaks of serve in its five sets. Roddick’s only one, in the 77th game, cost him the title.

Stroke-making

Federer possesses one of the most sleek actions in tennis. There seems always to be time, the ball taken early with a flick of the arm and on the balls of the feet. Precision of a needle, impact of a firing squad.

A flat forehand cracks like a whip, and leaps from the baseline in the blink of an eye. Or he will dance backwards, hover on one foot, and angle an inside-out that bends away from a rolling wrist to leap off the sideline.

Yet the forehand is a journeyman’s shot compared with the singular artistry of the backhand. The Federer single-hander, once regarded as a weakness, has turned into both defensive and offensive weapon.

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The signature sweep of that right arm, from behind left ear to behind right shoulder, is one of tennis’ great pleasures. It is one of the most extreme actions, arms folded back like the wings of a swan: grace on the surface, muscular contraction beneath.

He opens his chest and delivers backhand drives across court and down the line, then throws in a looping topspin that drops like a stone on the farthest margin.

To this formidable armory of shots he adds the deadly drop shot that whispers away from the open racket face to die across the tape: a stiletto blade through the rib-cage.

Volcanic red wrapped in cool blue

He’s worn both the hot and the cold. Outwardly calm, controlled, and serious, his contained demeanour is often taken for aloofness, humorlessness, even ill-temper.

The untroubled exterior masks a steely mind able to manipulate tactics, adjust timing, impose a rhythm, calculate a pattern, and winkle out the weakness.

It suppresses, too, a whirlpool of emotions that find release in the roar of victory or the tears defeat, in the brief celebration at a winning forehand or the intense response to a game pulled back from the brink.

There’s always a simmer of emotion behind the mask of control. It’s the same emotion that made a teenage Federer hurl his racket in anger until he learned that winning came from control; and reduced him to tears after losing in Melbourne and after winning in Roland Garros.

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Masterful and vulnerable: a heady mix.

U.S. Open 2008 final vs Andy Murray

From the moment Federer strode onto court, he looked a winner. Confident, purposeful, relaxed, moving in warm-up like mercury across the blue surface. But his tennis, like his scarlet shirt, burned flame-hot.

The onslaught began at once. Federer exuded a kind of prancing energy, weight forward, posture urgent. His tactics were to attack, and he did so with devastating backhands, showcase forehands, and aggressive forays to net—44 of them.

He constructed points like a chess player. A sliced backhand followed by a drive backhand, a forehand down the line followed by a slow, floating slice deep to the baseline corner before unleashing a whipped forehand at twice the pace. Within 26 minutes, the set was over, 6-2.

The fifth game of the second set was a pivotal moment, with Federer down three break points. He went for the lines, and saved them all. It unleashed Federer like a greyhound.

At 5-6 down, the Murray serve was subjected to a blistering attack. Three points were taken with smashes and the fourth with a chased down running forehand pass.

Federer raced to a lead in the third set and, with another sequence of smashes and a mighty roar, won it and the title, 6-2.

It’s hard to recall a more exultant Federer until the French Open victory in 2009. That U.S. triumph, after a tormenting year, meant the world.

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“Hard on the outside…soft on the inside”

It’s a teasing quote from a teasing video: the making of Federer’s latest ad for Lindt chocolate.

It shows his gift for—and pleasure in—his numerous extra-curricular activities as well as his tennis. It shows a mischief, and an awareness of his appeal but from the security of an 11-year relationship with his teenage sweetheart.

The natural extrovert is there again in the elder brother giggle-fest with Nadal as they try to publicise a charity exhibition match.

The Federer headlines are not about misdemeanors or scandal. They like to highlight his penchant for nice clothes and the A-listers in his supporters’ box, but they less often mention the man behind the scenes: the one who is president of the players’ council, is repeatedly voted most sporting player by his peers, who raised the bar in giving time to fans and to charity.

His main fund-raising efforts are given to his own Foundation, set up in 2003, which is the frequent beneficiary of all those luxury Swiss brands he endorses: Credit Suisse and that sweet-like-chocolate deal are tied in with direct donations.

Hit for Haiti, Melbourne 2010

It’s Friday night, just a couple of days before the first round of the first Grand Slam of 2010. Federer watched the unfolding tragedy in earthquake-hit Haiti, and wanted to contribute.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

He could simply have donated a substantial sum to the relief fund—several players did just that. Federer, though, had another idea: a big fundraiser. And if you’ve got clout, what better way to use it?

He texted Nadal, who immediately said yes. He got other big names on side—Roddick, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters—as well as Aussie favorites Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur. At which point, it was down to the Australian tennis authorities to help turn the Federer brainwave into a reality, in just 24 hours.

On Sunday, the crowds turned out—15,000 for the AU$10-a-head seats and another 5,000 in the Melbourne Park grounds. The final proceeds exceeded AU$0.5 million. And so effective was the event, in both money and awareness, that Roger and Rafa did it again in Indian Wells. 

Greater than the sum of their parts

In style, they are as contrasting as sun and rain, as different as the Arctic from the equator, as different as Mozart and Gershwin. One has a rapier attack, the other has all guns blazing. One is slender, angular, fluid, and silent. The other is expansive in muscle from shoulder to calf, daring and plunging, volume set to high.

Both are things of beauty that combine—as opposing colors do—into brilliant white light.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Their very contrasts have produced some of the most compelling, competitive, intense, challenging tennis of their generation. But then Roger and Rafa shake hands, share words, speak of each other with admiration—affection even.

And yet, and yet…pick one and discard the other: Sophie’s Choice.

It’s always raspberry rather than strawberry. It’s always Traviata over Boheme, Astaire over Kelly. It’s never Picasso instead of Matisse. Rome lifts the spirits, but New York makes the spirits sing.

And always, always, it’s Roger before Rafa.

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